(OPRAH.com) -- As a university instructor, the close of each academic term is always the same for me: I get a flurry of apologetic e-mails from panicked students who have put off their homework and term papers until the last possible moment. They beg for an extension.
Procrastination is a phenomenon that is familiar to everyone, even outside of academia.
Who really likes to wash laundry, balance checkbooks or fill out complicated tax forms? Most folks put these activities off in favor of more pleasant pastimes like socializing, going out to eat or reading a good book.
Procrastination is the result of having very little motivation for a boring or unpleasant activity and it is something everyone experiences. The real problem is that procrastination can sometimes overshadow a hidden strength.
Incubation is not procrastination
I once coached an extraordinary young man, whom I'll call Mark. Mark was at the tail end of his training at a prestigious medical school. When we met on a Monday of his last week, Mark told me he felt the stress of a number of weighty assignments, all of which had pressing deadlines.
He had only a handful of days to write applications for internships, turn in final papers and secure letters of recommendation. It was a tremendous amount of difficult work to be completed in a short period of time. Mark asked me to check back with him midweek to crack the whip and make sure he was still making progress on his work.
When we spoke again on Wednesday, Mark had fallen into a deep funk. Not only was there no progress, but he had frittered away hours in meaningless pastimes like downloading music and walking in the park.
Mark uttered the all-too-familiar phrase, "I am such a procrastinator!"
He vilified himself for checking e-mail, having lunch with his wife and other activities that appeared to be in the service of avoiding his more pressing tasks.
Something about the word "procrastinator" just didn't fit with what I was seeing. Here was a young man about to graduate from an elite medical school with a flawless academic record extending back into his middle school years.
My instincts told me that it was not a lifetime of chronic procrastination that led Mark to his current situation. On a hunch, I asked him a crucial question, "When you get around to completing your work -- and we both know that you eventually will -- how will the quality be?"
My client seemed taken aback by the question. He answered with confidence, a single word: "Superior!"
I realized, in that moment, that there may be a subtle but important difference between the "back burner" mentality I saw in my client and the traditional way a procrastinator works.
Procrastinators may have a habit of putting off important work. They may not ever get to projects or leave projects half finished. Importantly, when they do complete projects, the quality might be mediocre as a result of their lack of engagement or inability to work well under pressure.
What Mark presented was something qualitatively different: a clear sense of deadlines, confidence that the work would be complete on time, certainty that the work would be of superior quality and the ability to subconsciously process important ideas while doing other -- often recreational -- activities.
I realized I was looking at a strength, one I called "incubator." When I shared this term with Mark, he felt as if the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders.
What does incubation mean?
One of the greatest difficulties with identifying an incubator is that they often look like procrastinators. People with both work styles tend to put off work until the last moment, and both seem to be best motivated by external pressures such as deadlines.
Importantly, people with both work styles are likely to be hard on themselves and consider themselves lazy.
In a pilot study with 184 undergraduate university students, we were able to isolate specific items that distinguished incubators from the rest of the pack. Incubators were the only students who had superior-quality work but who also worked at the last moment, under pressure, motivated by a looming deadline.
This set them apart from the classic "good students," the planners who strategically start working long before assignments are due, and from the procrastinators, who wait until the last minute but then hand in shoddy work or hand it in late.
For most incubators, having a label that is less pejorative than "procrastinator" can be a breath of fresh air.
Incubators tend to be bright, creative people with an amazing gift to work hard under pressure. As such, they can be very dependable in work situations that require last-minute changes or tight deadlines.
The other side of this coin is that they can be frustrating to work with because they appear to sit idle for so long. For incubators, it can be as helpful to appraise friends, family members and co-workers of your natural work style so the people around you can adjust their expectations accordingly.
Setting realistic expectations for yourself can let you off the emotional hook as you appear to waste time, solid in the knowledge that your projects will be completed when they need to be.
My former coaching client, Mark, actually built in "incubation time" during which he could watch movies, listen to music or other goof-off activities, knowing that -- below the surface -- his mind was preparing for work and that he would snap into action when the time was right. As for my students requesting extensions for their term papers, they should have planned ahead!
Are You an Incubator? Use the scale below to answer the following questions:
4 - Perfectly describes me
3 - Describes me somewhat
2 - Does not really describe me
1 - Does not describe me at all
A. _____ I always get my work completed on time.
B. _____ The quality of my work is superior.
C. _____ It takes a looming deadline to motivate me.
D. _____ When I finally get to work, I feel highly engaged.
E. _____ I surprise myself by moving into action at the last minute.
F. _____ I do my best work under pressure.
If you scored a 20 or higher, you may be an incubator.
Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is on the editorial boards for the Journal of Happiness Studies and Journal of Positive Psychology and is the author of "Practicing Positive Psychology Coaching, Happiness: Unlocking the mysteries of psychological wealth" and "Positive Psychology Coaching."
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